Even after nineteen years, many people think that the dinosaurs of the Jurassic Park films are solely CGI creations, ushering in a new dawn and signalling the death knell of old school movie effects magic. They are wrong, of course. If anything, it is the outstanding animatronic creature performances of practical effects and make-up genius Stan Winston and his dedicated team that so successfully sell the reality of a prehistoric theme park gone pear-shaped.
The late Stan Winston was an award winning make-up, creature and visual effects artist who once said “I don’t think of myself as a special effects guy; I create characters.” He confidently told Jurassic Park director Steven Spielberg that he could create full scale, animatronic dinosaurs that would interact convincingly with the human actors on set and location. Winston began with highly detailed, well researched sketches from his talented team, and then built fifth scale, then full scale sculptures, or maquettes, as they are now known. The smaller sculptures were sliced into segments, so that when they were copied and enlarged with the internal armature, the team had a good idea of how detailed the final skin would have to be to maintain the precision movements beneath, giving the illusion of a living, breathing dinosaur.
A variety of methods were used to create the dinosaurs motion; cable-actuation, radio-control, and hydraulics. For certain close-ups, the top half of the T-Rex was attached to a flight simulator, nowadays a gimble would be made. Detailed legs and a head were created for close-ups. Movements of a mini-replica of the full scale T-Rex operated by a puppeteer were replicated in real time in the full scale animatronic beast. The Raptors were variously rod puppets, cable and radio-controlled, even men in suits.
The Velociraptor model was actually based on Deinonychus, because it was larger and more fierce in appearance. However, during filming, a similar version of the film Raptor was discovered and named the Utahraptor, leading Stan Winston to quip “We made it, then they discovered it.” Later films in the series reflected the latest palaentologist thinking, such as the idea that velociraptors had feathers.
Rather than Winston’s team try and match the CGI wide shots of the dinosaurs, it was the other way around, ILM following the old school example. Stan Winston credits Phil Tippett’s go-motion work as an inspiration, even though Tippett, when Spielberg said CGI had put him out of business, replied, “Don’t you mean extinct?” This remark made it into the final film when palaentologist Alan Grant first comes across the cloned dinosaurs.
Winston believed if you can do it live, you should. He believes the animatronic dinosaurs, brilliantly modelled, operated and lit, raised the bar for CGI to match their realism. But ultimately, he tips his hat to Steven Spielberg, the master story-teller, who weaved all the elements together – human, animatronic, CGI – to create “the most fun dinosaur movie we have ever seen.” After Jurassic Park, Stan Winston “evolved” into CGI (not forgetting make-up and animatronics, his first loves), setting up Digital Domain with previous collaborator director James Cameron, and Scott Ross, late of ILM.
I leave the final word to the late, lamented, practical and make-up effects legend himself, from an interview with now defunct Hotdog cinema magazine:
“I remember when Laura Dern walked on set and saw the sick Triceratops, how she really truly felt what she felt and it allowed her to have that feeling. When that Tyrannosaurus Rex, which weighed 25,000 lbs, 12 tonnes of dangerous machine, was smashing into a car, I guarantee those kids – they didn’t have to act afraid. The audience can feel that, the audience can tell the difference when something is completely animated, so that’s the magic of mixing animation and live action. I think that should never go away.”
Originally posted 2013-05-02 19:46:33. Republished by Blog Post Promoter